Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Long Before Liberty

With Northern Crown, Atlas Games returns to the world first portrayed in 2003's well received treatment of African adventures, Nyambe. Published in 2005, the focus of this d20 System setting though is not upon the Dark Continent and how the Europeans or Uropeans interact with, and impact upon her inhabitants, but rather it takes them both across the Great Western Sea to the rich, verdant continent of Northern Crown in the late 17th century. A myriad of cultures have settled on her shores and established colonies and even new nations, some in exile, some to trade, some to spread the good word, and some for the prestige it brings the home nation. And whilst they retain all of the rivalries brought from the East, the Uropeans must also interact with the many nations and tribes of the First Ones, the true natives of Northern Crown.

Consisting of two volumes – Northern Crown Adventures: New World Adventures, the equivalent of its Player's Handbook and the Northern Crown: The Gazetteer, the setting and source book, Northern Crown presents a fantasy version of Colonial era North America, heavily influenced by the period's history, legends, myths, and folk tales, and all given the slight twist of alternate history. Thus Charles I escaped the chopping block to maintain the English crown in Carolingia, his son Charles II still reigns, whilst Gloriana, the half-Fey daughter of Elizabeth I took the throne of Albion following the fall of Richard Cromwell. Vinlanders, descendants of Norsk settlers, still raid along the coast of Northern Crown as Puritans in Boston uphold the Dissenter faith against the Witches enclave of Naumkeag. The Kelts find refuge on the frontiers to the West, as the Cimarron, descendents of slaves bought over from Nyambe campaign to stamp the practice of human servitude. Vampires are said to influence the affairs of the Français colony of Nouvelle Orleans, whilst the state of Sophia under First Lord of the Republic, Philathelias Jefferson, is dedicated to freedom from absolute monarchism, the rights of man, and the pursuit of the sciences of Natural Philosphie. Beyond the frontier in the West exit the great and varied nations of the First Ones, primarily the Cherokee, the Mohawk, the Ojibwa, and the Shawnee, who live in harmony with the land and try to protect it from the expansionist predations of the Uropans, even as they trade with the new comers.

In addition, living legends walk the lands of Northern Crown – Johnny Appleseed is a powerful Sower, planting trees, healing, and preaching; Paul Bunyon is a mighty lumberjack, loathed by the first ones for the forests he has felled; and Chiron Franklyn, Lord Magus of Sophia, is diplomat, natural philosopher, and leading figure in the Solomonic Order. There are opportunities aplenty for the player characters to meet these mighty men and others, but in the long term they might well come to rival them in stature and attainment. The new lands are rife with adventure possibilities: exploration – discover the Northwest Passage, King Arthur’s final rest place, or the Fountain of Youth; go to war for the crown, faith, or frontier; face the supernatural, either to understand it, or to stamp it out; or enter into intrigues, at kingly courts, between rival nations, or between the many cults, orders, or secret societies found in Northern Crown.

Northern Crown is a human centric setting, but with a host of classes and character options. What this means is that instead of races, Northern Crown has Cultures, each one representing one of the peoples living on the Eastern half of the continent. Each Culture is described in detail, including an explanation why someone of that background would become an adventurer, along with which classes are favored. Not only does each Culture give bonuses in terms of skills and feats, additional bonuses come from selecting one of the favored classes, and these are different from one Culture to the next. The range of Cultures available present a wide choice and take in centuries of early American history, from Viking settlers and the Dutch merchants of New Amsterdam, through the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials, to post-Revolutionary War United States of America. All this and that is before you take into account the presence of the American Natives.

In terms of classes, Northern Crown keeps most of the core classes, though with a few minor changes. The role played by each class in Northern Crown is nicely explained. Gone though, are the Barbarian, the Fighter, the Monk, and the Rogue. They are replaced by the spy-like Agent, the Raider, a warrior at home fighting either in the forests, mountains, or at sea, and the obvious Rake, Scout, and Soldier. Of particular note are two classes, the first being Natural Philosopher, a delver into the laws of nature whose scientific learning and method grants him the ability to build fantastic devices, duplicate the effects of spell casters from the past age, and even counter such effects. A Natural Philosopher studies degrees in Anti-Magic, Life and Death, Magnetism, Matter, and Mentalism to gain these abilities and build the devices. Rules are given for creating inventions with the long list found in the Gazetteer including the flying Aerostatic Ship, Automaton Horses, Servants, and Soldiers, the Dupligraphic Pen for perfect copying, and the Lazarus Box, capable of restoring life to a corpse. The other is the Witch, who though not necessarily evil, is an arcane spell caster who gains her spells through a constant companion, a Lawful Evil Imp. He will do the witch’s bidding much of the time, but will tempt her to commit evil acts, so is an NPC controlled by the GM.

Likewise, many of the core Prestige Classes are retained, with Northern Crown adding more. Several model the setting’s Living Legends, including the Firebrand, the living symbol of a noble cause, the Frontier Legend, the Sower, the Tall Tale Hero, who is of great stature and capable of mighty feats, and the Wild Brawler. Others include the Falstaff, who personifies bad behavior, indulgence, and disrespect to anything honorable, the Fencing Master, the Officer, and the Sea Captain.

The most notable addition for any character will be his Social Rank. Initially determined randomly by culture and class, this is a measure of how NPCs will react to a character and how in turn, he should respond. Although a character will rise by one Social Rank per level gained, in Uropan Culture he will be unable to rise beyond a certain level without gaining a knighthood. A First One character has a greater degree of social mobility, and although he can rise higher, beyond that, he must marry into royalty. The basics of both Uropan and First One daily life are well-explained, also covering attitudes and religions. Besides all this, Northern Crown: New World Adventures lists and explains the setting's arms and equipment, feats, skills, combat, and spells. One curious addition is that of Psionic Knacks, limited to a trio of minor powers – Evil Eye, Firebug, and Second Sight. All three are Feat rather than class based, and allow a character to have abilities in-keeping with the feel of the setting, but without the need for them to take a spell casting class. Perhaps a little too powerful, they might be best kept for NPC use.

The sample character is a Witch of mixed parentage, who grew up amongst the Shawnee people of her mother. When she left to find her Keltic father, his family rejected her and she fled to the witch haven of Naumkeag. They have accepted and trained her as a Witch and now she serves the Coven. She is known for her healing hands and her beguiling looks that begin with her green eyes.

Hesther Argent (Wabethe), 1st Level Witch
Culture: Witchling Social Rank: 17
Str 15 Dex 11 Con 15 Int 12 Wis 17 Chr 16
Armour Class: 10 HP: 6 Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Feats: Second Sight, Two Worlds (Shawnee)
Skills: Concentration +4, Craft (Tailor) +2, Disguise +4, Heal +6, Hide +1, Knowledge (Nature) +2, Move Silently +1, Sense Motive +7, Spellcraft +5, Survival +4
Languages: English, Keltic, Shawnee
Special Abilities: Summon Imp, Black Garb (+1 AC), +2 Saves versus Fear; Low Light Vision (60 feet), Unholy Senses (+1 Sense Motive); Healing Hands (+2 Heal), Pawawka, Wildshield, Wildborn (+1 Survival)
Spells: 0-Level – detect magic, detect poison, read magic; 1st Level – bless, charm person
Favoured Weapons: Dagger (+1), Longbow (+1)

As good as Northern Crown: New World Adventures is, it really needs a companion volume to fully work. Northern Crown: Gazetteer is that volume, primarily a background sourcebook that describes each of the colonies and their notable locations, as well as discussing reasons to adventure, giving a full set of encounter and treasure tables, and monsters to go with the tables. Although plenty of core monsters are appropriate to Northern Crown, the new creatures have either an American flavor, like the Headless Rider or Lanternjack, or a native one, such as the Misig'nwa, a bear-like spirit that ensures the forests are hunted correctly. There is also a guide to magical items and inventions found in Northern Crown, and her most notable figures, but primarily, the Gazetteer is devoted to describing the state of the New World in more detail, and this it does well.

Physically, both books are slim hardbacks written in an engaging fashion, but what really stand out are the illustrations and the cartography. Done wholly by the author, Doug Anderson, both feel a little rough at first, but they grow upon you and only add to the feel of the game. Both books include the same bibliography, which whilst useful, is a little dry.

If there is a downside to Northern Crown, it is the price and format – two not inexpensive books. That though, is the only downside. If you consider its use of the d20 System to be a second downside, then to be blunt, you are wrong. What matters is the setting, which achieves several things. First, it employs the familiarity of both fantasy and history to make the unfamiliar both accessible and playable – the familiarity of Dungeons & Dragons, some Colonial American history, and its myths being used as gateway to explore the worlds and cultures of the Native Americans most obviously, but also the less well known aspects of the many colonies. Second it provides scope for a GM to run no two games alike within its near continental expanse, perhaps one focusing on the First Ones, another on the Uropans, and yet a third of mixed characters, and that is before you get to the actual options it discusses. Third it presents a setting between two ages: at the end of the medievalism represented by classic Dungeons & Dragons, and on the cusp of the age of reason, best represented here by the Natural Philosopher.

The most obvious thing that Northern Crown does is open up (and make accessible to the non-American) a period of history that has for the most part, has been wholly ignored by the hobby. Moreover, as a setting, Northern Crown: New World Adventures is rich, verdant, and full of gaming and roleplaying potential. It just begs to be played.